Have you been sleeping in, as so many of us have done—asleep in the face of the oppressions in this world, asleep while racism continues to fester, while queerphobias and especially transphobias rot our foundations?
When I spoke with Whryne Rasheed (they/MamaNe) about their faith journey, culminating in joining and taking leadership in Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU), they started with, “So when I became aware of the world—you know how you wake up, and you start having memories?” I realized that their story truly is about remembering, waking up.
Queerly Beginning in Community
Whryne remembers growing up in an evangelical Pentecostal denomination, The Church of God in Christ (COGIC). Whryne speaks of being surrounded in the warm community of women, and of their own call to faith leadership. But in their church, women could not be pastors, deacons, trustees, or any other positions of authority in church leadership. They said, “If you were a woman, you could be a missionary, you could be a church mother, and, at best you could be a prophetess.” For those of us outside of this church, we may not know what the specific terms mean, but we can understand them to be helper roles, not leadership.
Whryne names this patriarchal church as being structured in “more than a little bit of misogyny” in which youth are surrounded “like as a cult.” Then young adults are heavily encouraged to get married and have babies.
Remembering Roots, Queerly
Whryne’s bedrock is their great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother. Those three were sharecroppers in Little Rock, Arkansas. Their great-grandmother moved her seven [surviving] children to Northern Indiana during the great migration. Each of their foremothers were born 15 years apart, having babies young, but fully supported in generational family structure and love. Whryne’s great-grandmother marshaled the family into a new community and into a new faith.
Family love surrounded Whryne. They had a huge, extended family and felt safe living having all those people watching out for their welfare. Their family was deeply involved with the Church of God in Christ.
But, when Whryne’s mother left the church, Whryne and their brother were blocked from leadership withing the church because the leaders said they wouldn’t have support at home. Whryne also had lots of questions about inconsistencies in the Bible and ultimately was dismissed from church. They told Whryne, “You don’t have enough faith.” This dismissal made no sense to Whryne, a self-described “Jesus cheerleader,” back then, sharing that they had cheers like, “Give me a long Jesus! [Jeeeesssuuuusss!] Give me a short Jesus! [Jesus!] Don’t give me no words. [No words.] Don’t give me no phrase. [No phrase.] Just give me that name, that precious name!” Whryne even won the “Long Jesus” contest at nationals.
Breaking off from a space this fundamental doesn’t come simply. Whryne said, “I left church for maybe a year or two, and then I came back for a year or two until I finally escaped to college.” They added, “What I really missed about church was the community. But, between “the sexism and the misogyny and just top-down energy,” Whryne knew they were done with that church.
Queerly Beginning, Anew
Whryne stayed far from religion after that. But they missed and needed community. They said, “I was a single mom with five kids, and to have a community that wrapped around us was very important.” They were introduced to a Unitarian Universalist church where they went to college in Indiana.
It took time for Whryne to begin attending. They had to overcome the discord of seeing women preach—even just wearing pants. They said, “I just couldn’t deal with it!” But Whryne got past this because, they said, “White people do weird things.”
They appreciated the teachings of the church such as love the earth, take care of trees, and help our neighbors. They took joy in the Coming of Age celebrations that the Unitarian Universalists gave their children. In COGIC, coming of age was about being saved and going to Hell if children did wrong. In the UU congregation, children were celebrated in the “Age of Reason” ceremony for learning to read, which meant you can figure out for yourself what is right and wrong. Their daughter went through Coming of Age with the UU church, and they thought it was absolutely splendid.
For a while, it was enough. Whryne was focused on keeping their children safe. But they realized in their singular focus, they did not give their children the full beauty of Black culture. “I wasn’t intentional about things,” they said. They saw in UUism this “larger entity that has all this money and resources.” And they thought, “Are you just being smug saying, ‘The circle is round,’ or are you actually enacting any of the changes that are the seven principles of your faith?”
It was 2015, Whryne was “drifting away from my local church because my children were grown, and they were making their own choices.” But they became aware of a new movement. In 2015, a group of Black members of UUism came together to form Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU).
Whryne went to their first convening in 2017 with their youngest child. Remembering what that was like, they said, “For me it was truly amazing, because there were 100 other Black UU people who felt the same way I did. I agree with the tenets of the UU church, but—first—I don’t agree with how dry it is up in here, like, ‘Get some rhythm, please,’” and I don’t agree with UUs “holding this wealth above people. There was just a whole bunch of stuff that I had issues with in Unitarian Universalism. But the people in BLUU said, ‘Let’s be a community for Black people to connect to each other as Unitarians, and let’s also use this opportunity to change the way Unitarian Universalism is holding us as a container.’”
In BLUU, Whryne found a family that they understand and that understands them. Equity and justice weren’t just words said lightly, but the foundation. They said, “We don’t need to say we welcome queer and trans people because we are queer and trans people, and we center Black people. We center women. We center queer folks.”
“If you strip me down to my bare bones, who I care about the most, are the children that I gave birth to. I want them to be safe, and I want them to be free. And in order to do that, I have to be a person who is willing to go and enact the change that I want to see,” they said.
Whryne names themself as the sum of an “order of operations” rooted in their Blackness. They said, “I had a Black mother, and I had a Black father, which means that before I was ever born you knew I was going to be Black.” They add, “I am a Black woman who is queer. I’m a Black woman who is a mother. I am gonna wake up every day fighting for Black folks.”
Whryne is awake to their full, complicated truth, Black, femme, non-binary, abolitionist. They said, “So I really do drill these identities down because we only have this one life to live.” Whryne brings their advocacy home with, “I say, bring in Black, disabled, transgender women, and let me fight that fight with them, because that is a person who is more marginalized than I am, and it is my privilege to fight that fight.”
Whryne is driven by justice. They said, “What can we do in the wider world? What can we do to end white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism? What can we do to make these changes? In that sense, BLUU and I found each other at the same time.” For them, there is a “spirituality component of having an all-Black space where I can be free to be me, to worship the way that I would worship. To be loud. To say ‘Amen!’ To have these cultural references, to be at home, but also to be connected to an even larger entity which is damn rich.”
Whryne, rooted in family and faith, tells a truth that wakes to fundamental, abolitionist change growing from deep relationship, “Let’s love on our kids for longer. Let’s hold them longer. Let’s support them for longer,” they said.
Whryne offers up these gifts to the world: Family. Community. Abolition. Radical justice, lifting the most marginalized. And if we are united, then we must live into Black Lives Mattering, fully. We must wake up.
Vica-Etta Steel is a Vicar at St. John’s Lutheran where she preaches and does outreach. She also serves as a public chaplain at the Madison Farmers’ Market, at coffee shops, and on Tik-Tok. It is her joy to work with people across the spiritual spectrum who have returned to their queer family, Jewish, Pagan, Christian, to name a few, and the many atheist and agnostic people who taught her how to believe deeply in love, in community.